Is Lahore The Tipping Point? – Issue 10 Volume 6

“THIS IS A conspiracy to malign Pakistan and to give it a bad name,” has been a common refrain of most television anchors after the unfortunate attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on March 3. Fingers are being pointed at India, and the attack is being interpreted as New Delhi’s response to the equally tragic event in Mumbai last November. While many in Pakistan, India and the rest of the world might view such a statement as reactive, the fact of the matter is that proxy war is a reality in the subcontinent. Both India and Pakistan have used non-state actors against each other since the 1970s.

It is now claimed that the civilian Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had informed the provincial police officials about a prospective plan by India’s RAW to target the Sri Lankan team. Obviously, the police did not take any action in beefing up the security of the visiting cricket team, mainly because its senior officials and their political bosses — that is, the PPP Government at the Centre and in the province — were busy sorting out the party’s political rivals, the PML-N. So, the security lapse, which resulted in a huge embarrassment to the country, happened partly because the attention of the government and its bureaucracy was diverted towards secondary issues.

The Lahore incident was not a simple terrorist attack, but looked more like a commando action, one which was fundamentally different from the Mumbai attacks. The attackers had a specific target — the Sri Lankan team — and once that target could not be achieved, the assailants abandoned their mission and disappeared into thin air. While the scene of the Lahore attack was a reminder of what happened in Mumbai, especially when one looked at the young terrorists wearing backpacks and sneakers, the main difference lay in the manner in which they operated. Clearly, they were not on a suicide mission. They were not there to attain higher numbers of dead bodies and get killed in the process. Interestingly, no police re-enforcement arrived even though the battle went on for 20 minutes. The attackers are yet to be found. The approximately 12 terrorists seem to have disappeared as if they knew the city well, or had contacts who could hide them away from the eyes of law enforcement agencies.

The fact is that little attention is being paid at the moment to the internal linkages of the terrorists. In fact, the disappearance of the terrorists itself indicates local linkages. This is a debate that the bulk of the country’s intelligentsia and the strategic community have shirked. The opinion makers and policymakers continue to be divided on how to deal with the menace of terrorism, which is consuming the country. Already, there are three sectors like Bajaur, Waziristan and Swat, where government forces are battling the Taliban. And then, there are the Punjabi jihadis spreading their tentacles all over the largest province of the country, mainly south Punjab.

A number of terrorist attacks in the past, including the Marriott bombing and the suicide attack at the anti-terrorist centre in Islamabad, were carried out by terrorists from south Punjab. Even military officials admit that organisations such as Jaish-e-Mohammad are collaborating with the Taliban, particularly Baitullah Mehsud, in fighting the security forces in tribal areas. Yet, what we see is the lack of a strategic policy framework to tackle the various militant organisations in Punjab.

The official explanation for not taking any drastic action against the various militant outfits is that it might have dire consequences for the security situation as had happened after the Lal Masjid operation in July 2007. Suicide and other kinds of terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, and against security forces, increased after the Lal Masjid military operation. If we were to follow the trajectory of this particular official claim, then the deal with the Taliban in Swat by the Government of Pakistan is understandable. But the agreement is, in fact, an admission of the limited capacity of the state and its security forces to fight the terrorists. The international community, in any case, has been talking about the problems of lack of will and capacity in Pakistan to fight such elements.

The lack of capacity is inherently a different problem from the dearth of will to fight the terrorists, especially when the head of the primary intelligence agency, the ISI remarked, “Shouldn’t they be allowed to think and say what they please? They believe that jihad is their obligation. Isn’t that freedom of opinion?” Such views expressed by Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, which were also presented to elected Parliamentarians during an in-camera briefing on the war on terror, make a lot of people wonder as to how the security forces plan to fight this battle against the terrorists. Why is it that the military is less generous when it comes to the political forces and much more openhearted when the issue is of dealing with groups and individuals engaging in terror tactics?

Given the military’s generosity, reflected in General Pasha’s statement, it is not surprising to see militant outfits in Punjab thrive. Even the political government confessed that it had only closed down about 60 offices of the LeT after the Mumbai attacks. So, south Punjab continues to remain suspect in terms of terrorist planning, logistical support and recruitment.

Surely, the official explanation referred to earlier is an important angle. This indicates a lack of capacity to fight, and that becomes a more intense problem when compounded with the issue of a lack of technical expertise to do the same. Apparently, the military does not have the technological knowhow to jam Maulvi Fazlullah’s radio frequency for which the army General Headquarters has requested the US Government to give technical help. Sources believe that Washington’s greatest apprehension in passing on jamming technology to Pakistan is that they might use it to jam the US instead. The net result is that the military has abandoned its programme to jam Fazlullah and instead opted to start counter-programming, which might not work either, because the army lacks expert radio programmers and producers to thwart ‘Maulana Radio’s’ propaganda.

THE INABILITY to act against militant outfits in Punjab is also based on an erroneous assumption regarding the sympathies of ordinary people with the militant outfits. It is true that the jihadis have sympathisers amongst the people as well, and they get funds from ordinary citizens. However, the fact of the matter is that a lot of people do not stand up against these outfits out of fear, rather than anything else. These are groups which use violence as a tool to influence society, and so it is natural for people not to protest openly. But a larger issue is that the government has not strategised on how to fight such outfits. In Punjab, terrorism is still a problem that could be dealt with through the use of a sophisticated and coordinated police and intelligence operation.

There are two other dimensions regarding the domestic war on terror. The first pertains to the absence of coordination amongst the various governmental agencies to fight the menace. The lack of coordination is also due to the country’s rather dysfunctional democracy. Pakistan is, at best, a democracy in transition, where the different elements of the state tend to follow their own agenda. As a result, there are coordination problems even at the level of policymaking. An additional issue is that of the PPP Government’s unwillingness to restructure, build and strengthen institutions in the country. Although a lot of people believe that President Zardari’s heart is in the right place as far as fighting terrorism is concerned, his policies cause greater friction than consolidation. For instance, he has tried to create an alternative institutional base under his control comprising the civilian Intelligence Bureau and the Federal Investigation Agency. However, such an institutional base does not solve the problem of, for instance, building the capacity of the Ministry of Defence.

Desperate furry Pakishtanis destroy an effigy of President Asif Ali Zardari near Lahore Photo: AP

Secondly, opinion regarding the war on terror is extremely divided. While the government continues to get American support to fight the war on terror, the Pakistani ruling elite shirks from taking the people into confidence regarding its partnership with Washington. Considering the loss of life in drone attacks, people tend to equate poor governance in the country with US influence on Pakistan. This results in a popular perception that terrorism or militancy is not about changing the social structure of the country, but about fighting an imperialist aggressor. There is very little debate in the media or among the intelligentsia regarding the consequences of an increased Taliban influence. Moreover, those that support militancy rarely see the control of the state by the Taliban as a possibility.

THE PERCEPTION is that there might be conflict in some parts of the country due to the American presence in Afghanistan, but there will never be a complete takeover of the state by Taliban forces. As far as the elite are concerned, with a dispersed Taliban, control and peaceful co-existence is doable, provided these elements remain away from major urban centres and do not really challenge the privileges and lifestyle of those who have political power, be it civilian or military.

The variation in how the threat is perceived leads to a constant state of confusion, which creates an equal amount of confusion in the outside world about Pakistan’s dearth of capacity, and will to fight terrorism. Many question the state’s ability to survive. This is an image that, naturally, most in Pakistan do not like. The government’s concern is that terrorism or a bad image will negatively impact the country’s economic capacity. But then, there is a fundamental question — why is there a lack of consensus on a policy for fighting terrorism? The answer lies in the lack of institutionalised policymaking and the tendency of successive governments to offload national problems onto the international community. In many ways, a policy might not emerge unless Pakistan’s policymakers take ownership of their state.

Note: This article originally published here.